More Blair Than Bevan
Corbyn challenger Owen Smith claims the heritage of one of Britain's great radicals — but his record doesn't measure up.
“In so far as I can be said to have had a political training at all, it has been in Marxism.” These are the words of Aneurin Bevan, one of the Labour Party’s most prominent politicians in the twentieth century; a coal miner, a socialist, a driving force in the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS) and, we have discovered in recent weeks, a political hero of Owen Smith.
From cameo appearances in his campaign videos, to his family narrative, and references on the campaign trail, much work has gone into the “Bevanite” image Smith cultivates. But can Jeremy Corbyn’s challenger really lay claim to the legacy of one of Labour’s radicals?
On the very first page of his memoir, In Place of Fear, Bevan asks the critical question for socialists: “Where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain and how can it be attained by the workers.” As a young miner in a South Wales colliery, “this was no abstract question for us. The circumstances of our lives made it a burning, luminous mark of interrogation.”
According to Paul Murphy, former MP for Torfaen, Owen is “very much of the Bevanite tradition in our party … with a deep commitment to a politics based on actions, not just theories.” But Bevan himself found theory to be quite persuasive while studying in workers’ libraries. “Marx and the school which he founded,” he noted, “put into the hands of the working class movement of the late nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century, the most complete blueprints for political action the world has ever seen.”
For those worker-intellectuals, from “Jack London’s Iron Heel to the whole world of Marxist literature … the works of Eugene V. Debs and Daniel de Leon … the relevance of what we were reading to our own industrial and political experiences had all the impact of a divine revelation.”
The self-educated radicalism of Bevan and his workmates is miles from the political banality of Smith, who has spent more time thinking about viagra than historical materialism. Before becoming an MP, Bevan was a coal mine leader in South Wales during the 1926 General Strike. The ideas, theories, and experiences that nourished his development, framed his worldview, and sustained his political activity could not be farther from Owen Smith’s journey from BBC Radio, a job as a special advisor (SPAD) in Northern Ireland, lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and finally to parliament.
As well as a clear mismatch in personal trajectories, there are striking differences in their political lives. Bevan was for a time expelled from the Labour Party in 1939 for promoting Stafford Cripps’s proposed “Popular Front” policy (where Labour would join in coalition with other parties, including the Communist Party, against fascism). It’s a far cry from his twenty-first century adherents, who accuse anyone who has shared platforms with left-wingers of subversion.
Bevan, we should also remember, was banished from the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1955 for left-wing agitation against the party leadership over the question of nuclear weapons. He only avoided another expulsion from the Labour Party due to a rank-and-file rebellion. The incident demonstrated him to be a political leader willing to stick by his principles, even with a general election looming.
As the plotters in 2016 decry the infiltration of the Labour Party by a cabal of red agitators – a dreaded “party within a party,” who Smith himself has compared to parasites using Labour as a “host body” – they forget that this was the same line of attack used by the leadership against Bevan and his supporters. The hysteria with which Bevan was subjected in the press and inside the party has more in common with the experiences of Tony Benn and Corbyn than it does with the favorable treatment Smith receives.
Bevanites in 1950s, like Corbynites in 2016, were defined as the “wild men” of the constituency parties facing the “sober” defenders of the parliamentary leadership. There could hardly be a clearer echo of these smears than Smith calling Corbyn a “lunatic” at a recent campaign rally.
In reality, Bevan and Bevanism were reactions against the rightward drift of the Labour Party in government after 1945, propelled by the frustrated hopes of many in the party’s base. Smith’s candidacy quite clearly runs in the opposite direction, attempting to quell a rebellion by grassroots activists.
Smith’s parliamentarism contrasts sharply with Bevan, who never confused democracy in parliament with democracy as a whole. The House of Commons is “an elaborate conspiracy to prevent the real clash of opinion which exists outside from finding an appropriate echo within its walls,” Bevan said. “It is a shock absorber between privilege and the pressure of popular discontent.”
Smith expresses a desire to break from New Labour — rewriting Clause IV to include a commitment to fighting inequality. But to Bevan, vague commitments on inequality would never have sufficed. Real democracy meant taking on the power of property. “Either poverty will use democracy to win the struggle against property, or property, in fear of poverty, will destroy democracy,” he wrote.
Bevan was once part of the Executive Committee of the Socialist League — an internal Labour Party organization and pressure group set up in 1932 to advocate and win more radical socialist policies. The Socialist League’s program included the demand for “the immediate nationalisation of the banks, land, the mines, power, transport, iron and steel, cotton, and control of foreign trade.” By contrast, Smith until recently backed austerity and abstained on the Tory Welfare Bill.
While Smith remains silent as it conducts a campaign of exclusion and expulsion of Labour members and supporters, Bevan was never reconciled to the powerful party apparatus that had for decades isolated and reviled him and his supporters. Asked at a Labour Party conference in 1956 what he thought of the voting process which had made him party treasurer, he replied: “I think it has adjusted itself to some extent to the point of view of the rank and file. I don’t think the structure of the party is as democratic as it should be. The apparatus is not satisfactory just because it happens to favour me.”
On health care, Bevan’s area of greatest achievement, Smith’s policies are in almost laughable contrast. Bevan helped build the NHS and laid the basis for the British welfare state. Smith worked for Pfizer — a multinational pharmaceutical firm. Bevan resigned from a Labour cabinet in protest against NHS prescription charges, Smith has had no qualms about private involvement in the NHS. “Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that’s fine.”
On international issues, too, the two figures stand far apart. Bevan, unlike Smith, was a noted voice for peace. At a Trafalgar Square rally against the 1956 war in Suez — in words that could have been spoken in 2003 over Iraq — Bevan said: “If we are successful in the war, what will that prove? It won’t prove that we are right. It is only the logic of the bully.”
Bevan opposed the British government’s support for the United States’ resolution in the United Nations condemning China as the aggressor in the Korean War, and the imposition of sanctions. Smith has no such pedigree in standing against war. ‘We are making significant inroads in improving what is happening in Iraq,” Smith told a journalist in 2006. “I thought at the time the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in.”
The opinion polls seem to show a runaway victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. Smith’s Blairite-Bevanism may well be a historical artefact come October 2016. But the battle over Bevan’s legacy matters. In a party whose political identity is often tribalistic, appeals to historical legitimacy grant important authority.
Bevan is one of the great figures of British socialism. His career is marked by revolts against the established order, and defence of grassroots and socialist politics. He would have had little affinity with Owen Smith’s campaign or his brand of “Bevanism.” Smith’s sudden and lackluster conversion to the Left cannot give him credibility. All it reveals is a desperation to garner legitimacy from someone else’s radical past.